Opinion: Use of National Guard to Fill Labor Shortages Is Attack on the Working Class

By Vincent Cross

State governments across the country are increasingly bringing in National Guard members as a replacement labor force to address the crisis of a growing wave of labor disputes and worker shortages in the health care and education as many quit their jobs amid worsening working conditions and low pay. Such extraordinary uses of military labor by the capitalist ruling class demonstrate its inability and unwillingness to resolve poor working conditions or manage the pandemic response in a way that truly addresses the grievances and concerns of workers.

In the state of New York this past month, Governor Kathy Hochul signed an executive order which declared a “state of emergency” with regard to the potential shortage of hospital workers after the state began to enforce vaccine mandates for all workers in the health care industry. In the executive order, Hochul loosened the requirements defining who could be hired for health care positions by allowing the state and hospitals to hire health care workers who have either retired or have lapsed licenses. In addition, the loosened restrictions also allow the hiring of health care workers who are licensed out of state or outside of the United States, and, importantly, National Guard officers with medical training.

National Guardsmen have already been deployed in states across the country to fill positions at hospitals that are considered severely understaffed in the face of the most recent wave of the Delta variant of COVID-19.

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has used emergency powers to call up hundreds of National Guard members to work as school bus drivers, prison guards, and COVID-19 testers in prisons and school districts across the state. In other states like Michigan and Utah, National Guardsmen have been called up to fill COVID-19 testing support positions at schools. Meanwhile in Ohio, several school district administrations are calling on the governor to take the same road and provide them with military labor to help with their currently-shorthanded school busing systems.

In many of these states, especially in New York, there are ongoing strikes of thousands of health care workers who have walked off the job to demand better pay and more humane and safe working conditions. Over 2,000 health care workers are currently on strike at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York to demand better pay and a safer staff-to-patient ratio.

Many politicians have painted the National Guard deployment as necessary due to a lack of vaccinated staff in school districts and hospitals that have implemented vaccine mandates. They blame workers for the conditions created by the capitalist ruling class, in which many are skeptical of the vaccine due to a mistrust of the government and the capitalist health care system. In a press conference, Hochul stated, “We’re taking all the steps preemptively in anticipation of what I call a preventable staffing shortage. … I don’t have to do this if people will get vaccinated.”

These statements ignore the reality that these staffing shortages have existed pre-pandemic. Additionally, during the pandemic, an increasing number of workers have left health and education sectors because of stress, overwork, poor pay, and deteriorating working conditions, not primarily because of vaccine mandates. US politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are using the topic of vaccine mandates to direct anger away from themselves and pit sections of the people against each other, vaccinated against unvaccinated. The ruling class seeks to distract from the fact that they have criminally mismanaged the pandemic response, resulting in over 700,000 deaths in the US alone.

Guardsmen: Scabs and Executioners

The widespread use of military labor to replace striking or departing workers is part of the State’s attempt to bring the economy out of the New Depression amid a wave of strikes and labor struggles. The capitalist ruling class is deploying its military to intervene in the crumbling health care and education systems as the workers reject the low pay and poor working conditions imposed by the decaying imperialist system in the US. The people should not forget that these armed apparatuses do not mainly exist to serve the people or even to replace workers, but to repress them.

In 1894, 8,500 guardsmen were deployed to put down striking ironworkers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. In 1914, the National Guard attacked a tent colony of striking coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, murdering 20 people including 11 children, in an incident known as the “Ludlow Massacre.” In 1985, guardsmen were used to protect scabs hired to break the strike of 1,500 Hormel Foods Corporation workers. Of course, in uprisings of the people, whether against imperialist wars, or racist police brutality, the National Guard has arrived to drive tanks through US cities and put down rebellions.

The capitalist State has also utilized National Guard members to work as scabs during significant strikes, especially during the 1970s in the public sector as postal workers and fire fighters rose up in struggle. This past May, Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut threatened to use National Guard members to replace thousands of nursing home workers if they went out on strike for better pay and staff-patient ratios. Biden has now signaled his willingness to deploy the National Guard to work as longshoremen at Southern California ports in response to the collapses in the imperialist economy’s supply chain as freight continues to back up.

The deepening crises of imperialism are being accompanied by the State’s increased deployment of the military to intervene in the economy, now expanding to the health care industry and education sector. The imperialist State is using the pandemic as a pretext to harden its tactics in labor disputes, aiding the decaying heath care system and those who profit from it, and to maintain the deplorable conditions for workers, teachers, and students in the backwards education system. As workers’ struggles become more pitched and the capitalists become more desperate, the State will not only use the National Guard to replace labor, but deploy them to attack workers who are rising up to fight for what is theirs.

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